Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dead Man's Cell Phone

DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE'S makes for a fascinating but off-putting experience at Dobama

At the start of DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE, now on stage at Dobama Theatre, the to be expected “Please turn off your cell phone” echoed forth. Sarah Ruhl, the author of the play, probably would add an additional warning, “Throw away your cell phone if you expect your life to filled with meaningful relationships.”

Ruhl is one of the most acclaimed young authors working in the theater today. She writes surrealist fantasies that happen to be populated by eccentric people, who find themselves in illogical dreams which appear to be real. She blends the mundane and the metaphysical, the authentic and the obscure. She does not write in the traditional mode of beginning (exposition), middle (story development), conclusion (this is what the whole story means or this is the moral.) Her format is nonlinear. She throws in surprises and mysteries as she probes how people experience life. She has said, “Everyone has a great, horrible opera inside him. I feel that my plays, in a way, are very old-fashioned fancifully surreal aspects of the story.”

Sound confusing? That's probably why many of the audience left mumbling that they didn't understand what was going on and the post-play discussion was filled with questions probing the meaning of the piece.

In DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE, while eating in a restaurant, Jean picks up the incessantly ringing cell phone of a stranger (Gordon). He has good reason not to answer it himself: Gordon is dead. Answering the cell, the simplistic Jean, like Alice in wonderland, falls into a strange psychological hole. As she wanders further and further, events keep getting odder and odder. We learn that Gordon has a lack of real connection with family and friends, though he has been in constant contact with them via cell phone calls and messages. He searches after bodies, but not for emotional contact.

Jean gets swept up in a world, like the world many of us inhabit, in which electronic media acts as the conduit for personal relationships…cell phones, voice mail, texting, twittering, email, electronic meetings. As Ruhl explains it, “I started the play before cell phones were as ubiquitous as they are - but I felt as though they were already changing culture, our sense of solitude and community and our sense of time as always happening in the instant.” She goes on to say that, in spite of extensive communication, much of it is meaningless, often we don't even care who is listening, and that “the air is now filled with these voices - there is no longer any privacy.”

Jean finds herself making up lies to cover for Gordon's lack of conveying his feelings and thoughts to his “loved ones.” She uses her imagination to fill in what she thinks Gordon should have said. This results is a reconstruction of Gordon's relationships with his wife, mother, and mistress. One must question whether Jean's actions are stimulated by her own yearning and lack of fulfillment in her own relationships.

Dobama's production, under the direction of Scott Miller. is unfocused. Yes, the play is abstract, but, as was revealed during the opening night talk-back, Miller seems to have avoided asking himself, and forcing his cast to probe into what Ruhl was specifically trying to convey.

As I was watching the performance and listening to the talk back, I could only recount the words of Donald Bianchi, the founding Artistic Director of Dobama who used to preach over and over, “As a director or an actor, if you don't clearly know what you are trying to say to an audience, you will not accomplish your end goal.”

Yes, Ruhl writes in metaphysical terms, but if the director and cast had decided on what they thought were her underlying motivates, the play may have been focused and probably made more sense. The cast and director explained themselves with such phrases as: “My purpose was to stay in the moment.” “Everyone has to create their own journey.” “We each bring something to it.” “You can take the script and go any place with it.” Sorry, but, to again flash back to Bianchi's concept, unless the director and the cast know what they, as a unit, are trying to accomplish, the results is what may have best be summed up by a question of a member of the audience, “What was going on here?”

In spite of the obtuseness, the performances were excellent. Excellent as performance art, not of conveying clarity of ideas. It's like, as Bianchi used to say, “If a wonderful actor reads from a phone book, we can be astounded by his skill, but that doesn't mean we'll gain much from what is said.”

Joel Hammer, Tracee Patterson, Paula Duesing, Maryann Elder, Dianne Boduszek and Tom Woodward all performed high levels of performance art.

The clearest focus on stage was Mark Jenks set design. Consisting of abstract walls, risers that were off-kilter, and over-lapping areas of action, it conveyed Ruhl's out of balanced surrealistic concepts.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Dobama's DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE will fascinate some and confound others. It probably isn't going to be an easy sit or a meaningful experience for many, in spite of excellent acting.